When the sheriff in Marion County, Fla, wrote an email to his deputies this week about a new mask order, he expected there would be complaints. “I can already hear the whining,” Sheriff Billy Woods wrote, noting that he did not make the decision “easily.”
And at a time when more states and cities are requiring face coverings, Sheriff Woods’s decision was unusual — he forbade his deputies from wearing masks while on duty, with some exceptions, and barred visitors to his offices from wearing them.
Sheriff Woods said the purpose of his order, which was first reported by The Ocala Star-Banner, was less about the efficacy of masks in stopping the spread of the coronavirus than about improving communication with the public.
He wrote that “in light of the current events when it comes to the sentiment and/or hatred toward law enforcement,” an apparent reference to nationwide protests over police brutality this summer, that it would be better if officers’ voices were not muffled behind masks and that citizens’ faces were not obscured.
Public health officials across the world now agree that wearing a face covering in public is crucial to slowing the spread of the virus. In the United States, many localities that initially resisted imposing mask mandates changed course after virus cases started to soar over the summer, and now require them.
But Sheriff Woods, a Republican who was elected in 2016 and participated in a phone call between law enforcement and President Trump on Tuesday, was not swayed by the scientific consensus.
“We can debate and argue all day of why and why not,” he wrote. “The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reason why we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t.”
Marion County, a Central Florida county that is home to about 365,000 people, has not been hit as hard as some other places in the state, but has had 6,798 cases and 104 deaths since the start of the pandemic. The county added about 176 new cases and four new deaths per day, on average, in the seven days ending Tuesday.
The sheriff’s order made exceptions for officers at the county courthouse, in jails and in public schools — but he made clear that he was not convinced they were necessary.
There remain deep divisions in the United States over mask wearing, often rooted in partisan politics. Some people resent being told to wear masks, and others resent people’s refusal to wear them; the arguments at times have turned violent.
So officials in some parts of the country are putting their foot down.
In Miami Beach, officials have issued more than $14,000 in fines to people who have refused to wear masks. Illinois, where coronavirus cases have been rising, enacted a measure on Friday making it a felony to assault a retail worker who is enforcing a mask-wearing policy.
And the sight of thousands of unmasked faces at a motorcycle rally last week in Sturgis, S.D., prompted Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire to change his mind, issuing an order requiring masks at gatherings of more than 100 people in his state, including a motorcycle rally planned for later this month.
In Marion County, the sheriff’s order came amid a fight over a mask order in the county’s largest city, Ocala, which put a face-covering ordinance in place last week, only to have it vetoed on Monday by the city’s mayor, Kent Guinn.
Mr. Guinn also said that he had spoken to Chief Greg Graham of the Ocala Police Department, who agreed that a mask mandate would not be enforced. “We will never write a fine,” Mr. Guinn told 97.3 FM The Sky. “We’re just not going to do it.”
But his veto was overruled on Wednesday by the City Council, which upheld the emergency ordinance requiring face masks inside of businesses.
Local reaction to the mask orders has been mixed. “Good luck making me,” one Facebook user wrote on a City Council post about restoring the ordinance on Wednesday. “I stand behind the mayor, the police chiefs and Marion County Sheriff and I’m voting out current city council.”
But Amber Gibbs, a Marion County resident who described the situation as “a kind of mask war,” said decisions like those made by Sheriff Woods were sending “the wrong message.”
“I don’t feel safe at all when our leaders are promoting anti-science,” she said. “That’s why we’re staying home for the most part.”
Still, Sheriff Woods said that visitors to his offices would be asked to remove their masks. If they refuse, Mr. Woods said, they will be asked to leave.
He also provided guidance to his deputies for how to deal with people who might ask why they do not wear face coverings. “If at any time you are confronted by any individual complaining, berating you or just being a difficult individual,” Mr. Woods wrote, “you will politely and professionally tell them ‘I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff’ and then walk away from them.”
The sheriff ended his email on a strict tone of enforcement: “My orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address.”
Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.